Carpeting is an oft-overlooked culprit when it comes to compromised indoor air quality, but the chemicals used to produce it are typically far from natural. According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), most carpeting is made from synthetic fibers derived from non-renewable petroleum-based sources and emits harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
Meanwhile, carpet backing is typically made from synthetic rubber derived from styrene and butadiene, also respiratory irritants. And that new carpet smell we know so well comes from the off-gassing of 4-PCH, a potent VOC byproduct of the synthetic rubber manufacturing process known to cause respiratory problems, eye irritation and rashes. EWG adds that it can also react with other chemicals to produce formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.
Likewise, the glues and sealants used to install most wall-to-wall carpeting come chock full of more VOCs and in some cases, toxic petroleum-based solvents. To add insult to injury, the waterproofing and anti-microbial treatments now common in everyday carpeting have been linked to cancer, birth defects and hormone disruption. Last but not least, carpet padding is typically made from scraps of polyurethane recycled from older furniture and mattresses—and as such likely contains carcinogenic chemical flame retardants now banned in new furniture.
Well that's all well and good, but what choices do we have?
Carpeting labeled with the Carpet & Rug Institute's "Green Label Plus" or UL Environment's "Greenguard" emit low amounts of VOCs and as such are safer for you and your family. Wool is the most common eco-friendly choice, but jute and cotton varieties are coming on strong. Stay away from stain fighting, waterproofing or antimicrobial treatments. For carpet padding, go with felt rather than synthetic rubber. And make sure to use low-emitting, non-solvent adhesives and/or fasteners during installation.
No matter what kind of carpeting you end up with, make sure to vacuum it regularly—the American Lung Association recommends at least 3x/week with a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum—to remove dust, allergens and pollutants that you (or your pets) might track in. "Carpets are ... the perfect environment to harbor dust mites, mold and mildew, which are all common allergens," reports EWG.
One way to avoid all of these issues entirely is to forego carpeting altogether and go with tile, wood, cork or natural linoleum flooring with low-VOC sealant. They don't off-gas VOCs or harbor allergens and pollutants, and they're easy to clean while lasting decades longer than carpeting anyway. Throw down a few wool area rugs (easily cleaned outside) and you'll be good—and green—to go.
Now what to do with the old carpeting is another question entirely. Carpeting is difficult to recycle as it's made from multiple components with different chemical makeups, so your local curbside recycling hauler is unlikely to take it away for you. The non-profit Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) is working to develop the infrastructure needed to recycle carpet efficiently across the U.S. In the meantime, you can search on Earth911 for a carpet recycler near you.
CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org; Green Label Plus, carpet-rug.org/testing/green-label-plus; Greenguard, greenguard.org; CARE, carpetrecovery.org; Earth911, search.earth911.com.